BEIJING: China was to launch its longest-ever manned space mission on Tuesday, with its second woman astronaut among the crew, as it steps up its ambitious space program, a symbol of the country’s growing power.
The Shenzhou-10 — the name means “Divine Vessel” — was due to lift off at 0938 GMT from the Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi desert.
The three astronauts on board, including Wang Yaping, 33, who trained as an air force transport pilot, are scheduled to spend 15 days in space, program spokeswoman Wu Ping said.
Beijing sees the multi-billion-dollar space program as a marker of its rising global stature and mounting technical expertise — as well as the ruling Communist Party’s success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
It is heavily promoted to the domestic audience. The mission was given blanket coverage in state-run media on Tuesday, with stories and pictures of the astronauts in their blue jumpsuits — a Chinese flag pinned over their chests — on almost every front page.
Wang will teach lessons to schoolchildren via video link during the mission, officials said.
“We are all students in facing the vast universe. We are looking forward to joining our young friends to learn and explore the mystical and beautiful universe,” she told a press conference on Monday.
The official Xinhua news agency ran profiles of the three astronauts, and said that Wang has 1,600 hours of flying experience, including dispelling clouds for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
She is a major in the military and a member of the Communist Party.
“The experience of doing farm work since an early age has made her strong, and the habit of long-distance running tempered her will,” Xinhua said.
It quoted her as saying that during parachute exercises in the air force: “We girls all cried while singing an inspiring song ‘A Hero Never Dies’ on our way back after the training.”
Mission commander Nie Haisheng, 48, a major-general who will have spent longer in space than any other Chinese astronaut by the time the mission finishes, told the agency: “This is my job and duty. It is an honour for me no matter I am a soldier or a general.”
The third crew member, senior colonel Zhang Xiaoguang, has previously tried for selection for space missions but was not picked, Xinhua said.
“If success is part of our life, so are setbacks. If those who had never failed are winners, so are those who always keep on trying,” it quoted him as saying.
The Shenzhou-10 will dock with the Tiangong-1 — “Heavenly Palace” — space laboratory, and the crew will transfer into it and carry out medical and space technology experiments.
China first sent a human into space only in 2003 and its capabilities still lag behind the US and Russia, but its programme is highly ambitious and includes plans to land a man on the moon and build a station orbiting earth by 2020.
At the same time the United States, long the leader in the field, has scaled back some of its projects, such as retiring its space shuttle fleet.
Independent space analyst Morris Jones, who is based in Sydney, Australia, described the Shenzhou-10 as “more complex than any mission China has attempted before”.
“I think the fact that they’re flying a very long and complex mission shows that China’s astronaut program has reached a full degree of maturity,” he said.
“They are very steadily laying the groundwork that they will need to build their own space station.”